chapter  8
Olmert’s Near Breakthroughs: Annapolis Process and Syrian Talks
Pages 35

The failures of Oslo and Camp David spawned one of the most difficult and violent periods in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the second Intifada (termed the al-Aksa Intifada by the Palestinians) and Israeli military retaliation accompanied by reoccupation of areas in the West Bank. In addition, there was periodic, heavy shelling on Israel from Hamas and Islamist groups in Gaza and two major Israeli attacks on Gaza, along with a second war on Lebanon. A good part of the period between Sharon’s replacement of Barak in the February 2001 elections and the opening of the Annapolis Conference in November 2007 was spent in trying to end the violence and forge a path to resumption of a peace process. But it was also a period of complex developments inside both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and within an entirely changed global and regional context that included the 9/11 attacks on the US, the 2003 Iraq War, and the growing power of Iran as well Islamic radicalism in the region. For the Israeli leadership, the major challenge was the violence of the Intifada

and the domestic pressure that it created for some kind of government action, beyond the use of military force. Arafat’s death in 2004 had done nothing to alter the stalemate, though it did bring an end to most of the Intifada related violence. But the total absence of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians did give rise to important voices from military and former security leaders in Israel urging conciliatory measures to strengthen the new, apparently moderate leader of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the PLO, Abu Mazen.1 This pressure, combined with a widely publicized, detailed “peace agreement” – the Geneva Initiative – modeled by a track-two effort of Israeli and Palestinian public and security figures, prompted Sharon to undertake an extraordinary unilateral step: full Israeli disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Announced at the end of 2003, and implemented in August 2005, the disengagement entailed the evacuation of some 8,500 settlers and all Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from the Gaza Strip, along with the evacuation of four sparsely populated settlements in the West Bank. Sharon’s motivation was not entirely clear – beyond his own stated need to pre-empt the imposition of unfavorable plans upon Israel, meaning presumably the Geneva Initiative.2 One possible motive was that he simply sought to divide and thereby weaken the PA, cutting off

Gaza from the West Bank; another possibility was that it was a first step in a plan for further, even large-scale withdrawals from the West Bank. Indeed, the latter idea is what the Americans were told in Washington by Sharon’s Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert shortly after the disengagement.3 Still another explanation was the growing realization in right-wing circles of the demographic issue (whereby Jews would soon be outnumbered by Arabs in the total area held by Israel). Disengagement from the Gaza Strip would “remove” some 1.3 million Palestinians from Israeli control. The evacuation of the settlers in August 2005 was a politically tumultuous event – earlier Sharon had actually had to leave his party (which rejected his plan) and create a center party, Kadima;4 but it was also one that proved that relatively large-scale evacuation of settlements could be carried out. As a purely unilateral measure, however, the disengagement was to have a

serious negative effect. In abjuring the strategy of negotiation of Abu Mazen’s Fatah, the move appeared to prove the value of Hamas’s strategy of violence for achieving Israeli withdrawal, thereby strengthening the Islamist Hamas at the expense of nationalist Fatah and the PLO. Combined with Palestinians’ disenchantment with Fatah corruption and ineffectiveness, along with other factors such as the electoral system, Hamas’s enhanced reputation led to a solid victory in the January 2006 elections and the creation of a Hamas-led government of the PA. Israel refused to have anything to do with a PA run by Hamas, inasmuch as the organization rejected the existence of Israel. Both the US (which had Hamas listed as a terrorist organization) and the Quartet5

adopted Israel’s ban on Hamas, also accepting its conditions that Hamas cease terrorism and disarm terrorist groups, recognize the right of Israel to exist, and accept all previous agreements signed with Israel. This meant not only boycott of the PA but also the withholding of funds and suspension of contacts and agreements, although Israel could and did meet with Abu Mazen in his capacity of chairman of the PLO and even as president of the PA. Just a few weeks before these Palestinian elections, dramatic events had

occurred in Israel as well: in early January 2006 Sharon suffered a stroke and went into an irreversible coma.6 He was replaced temporarily by his deputy PrimeMinister Ehud Olmert, who then went on to win the March 2006 elections at the head of Kadima. Actually, Olmert, former mayor of Jerusalem and long-time Likud politician, was not a popular figure; he had placed relatively low in the Likud Knesset primaries of 2003, but his choice by Sharon as deputy prime minister now projected him unexpectedly to power. Presenting himself as the past partner to Sharon, Olmert ran in the March 2006 elections on the promise to undertake unilateral disengagement from the West Bank. He preferred to call this “convergence,” which in its Hebrew meaning was closer to the idea of “pulling inward;” it came to be called “realignment.” Without providing specifics, Olmert advocated evacuation of the settlements from most of the West Bank (later approximated at 92 percent of the West Bank) – namely, those settlements east of the fence/wall (or a changed demarcation of this barrier) that the Sharon government had begun to build.

This “security barrier” as it was to be called officially had actually been a Labor Party proposal at the height of the Intifada, the idea being to prevent terrorist incursions into Israel proper. The line of the barrier approved by the Sharon government would veer into the West Bank, east of the “green line,” encompassing roughly 10 percent of the West Bank. A proposed line for a fence in the Jordan Valley was not approved by the government; it would have provided de facto annexation of still more land. With the withdrawal proposed by Olmert, roughly 60,000 settlers (according to some estimates) were to be moved to settlement blocs west of the fence (i.e., near the “green line”) that would be annexed to Israel.7 The withdrawal remained unilateral, presumably as a continuation of Sharon’s ideas, but now, also, because of the ascent of Hamas in the January elections.8